how we survived: 爺爺’s pantoum (i) huiying b. chan

        In 1973 my grandfather made a five-mile swim from Shenzhen Bay to Hong Kong, across
        shark-filled waters guarded by the People’s Liberation Army. He was part of an exodus of
        hundreds of thousands who fled from Guangdong as refugees of the Cultural Revolution.
      This is his story.

you had to know the currents, & the sun
stay shallow to keep warm in the waters.
you had to believe you could do it
& not be afraid to die.

stay shallow to keep warm in the waters
dream of banyan roots aglow
i was not afraid of dying
even as tides surged my blued lips.

i dreamed of banyan roots aglow 
when pistol shots scraped shoreline
tides surged my blued lips
toisan frog treading to freedom.

when pistol shots scraped shoreline
i cried out for my hing dai
toisan frogs treading to freedom
trachea inflamed, violet balloon.

i cried out for my hing dai
when searchlights flooded our vision
tracheas inflamed, violet balloons
liberation army cuffed us home soon.

when searchlights flooded our vision
i pretended the sun was rising
liberation army cuffed us home soon.
record that in this pantoum.

i pretended the sun was rising
when rocks scraped scalps & wood splintered knees
record that in this pantoum
i waited for the scars, & returned.

rock-scraped scalp & wood-splintered knees
bandaged in 嬤嬤’s scolds, congee, & lotus root
i waited for the scars, & returned
new hing dai came searching for a guide.

bandaged in 嬤嬤’s scolds, congee, & lotus root
i trained laps in the bay each night fall
new hing dai came searching for a guide
water lilies & crickets, our witness.

we trained laps in the bay each nightfall
i had to believe we could make it
water lilies & crickets, my witness
this time, i knew the currents & the sun.


 

爺爺 —  yeh yeh, Cantonese for paternal grandfather
hing dai — Cantonese for brothers or close friends
嬤嬤 — mah mah, Cantonese for paternal grandmother
trachea — windpipe, serves as an air passageway to the lungs
pantoum — a poetic form with roots in Malaysian oral history, where the 2nd and 4th lines of a stanza become the 1st and the 3rd of the next.
stanza — lines grouped together in a poem

 

Published in Best New Poets 2021, Selected by Kaveh Akbar.

Read the second part of the pantoum here: how we survived: 爺爺’s pantoum (ii) by huiying b. chan

2 thoughts on “how we survived: 爺爺’s pantoum (i) huiying b. chan

Add yours

  1. While I’ve never swum such a distance, nor under such dangerous circumstances or with such high stakes, I can say that the hypnotic repetition of the pantoum form suits the state of mind one has during a long-distance swim. The intensity of this form is perfect. Well done, Dandelion!

    Liked by 1 person

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